In the realm of local land use there are few development proposals that have the tendency to evoke neighborhood resistance than a new group home. The response is particularly vehement when the home is intended to serve those with chemical dependency and especially controversial in a low-density neighborhood. While most people acknowledge a need for residential treatment, “not in my back yard” is a common response when residents perceive a threat to their property values, neighborhood character and safety.
As treatment models have evolved, residential group homes have become the gold standard for treatment and recovery. Group home and residential treatment models have popped up in residential communities across the country as health professionals and families grapple with the opioid epidemic. While the perception is that group home residents are “outsiders” coming into the community to spread crime, the reality is that the addiction is a disability that affects every community and class of society. These are the brothers, sisters, and parents, and friends who already live in our communities. What protections are afforded to those who are simply seeking a safe place to recover and overcome in a familiar community, close to their support network?
The Federal Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 (FHAA) was intended to expand the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which prohibits discrimination in housing based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. The FHAA extended those protections to families and persons with disabilities and makes it illegal to “discriminate in the sale or rental, or to otherwise make unavailable or deny, a dwelling to any buyer or renter because of a handicap of . . . that buyer or renter . . . or any person associated with that buyer or renter.” Discrimination includes “a refusal to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services, when such accommodations may be necessary to afford such person equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.”
Individuals living in group homes recovering from alcohol or chemical dependency are classified as having a “handicap” under the FHAA and are protected, as long as they are not currently engaged in the illegal use of or addiction to a controlled substance. As a result, in the context of group home locations, discrimination by local government can include the refusal by a municipality to make reasonable accommodations to spacing requirements, occupancy restrictions, and use restrictions under the local zoning ordinance.
The FHAA does not preempt local zoning control, but it does require reasonable accommodation of zoning rules that otherwise would not permit residents of group homes to live where they want, with the services they need and in an environment is conducive to healing. Reasonable accommodation protects disabled persons’ right to live in the dwelling or home of their choice, not just some property within the community. These protections apply even if the local zoning code does not allow the use, or in some instances, specifically prohibits the use.
Despite the fact that the FHAA is 30 years old this year, many communities still resist new group homes based on the fears of residents. The resulting burden on project proposers to obtain relief under the FHAA is often far heavier than it should be under the law. As the opioid epidemic continues to rage and the group home model continues to gain movement as an effective tool in overcoming chemical dependency, it remains to be seen whether local governments will willingly recognize their responsibilities under the law.